I was showering this morning, washing off the filth from yesterday’s commute, when I noticed my technique.
First I massaged my face with soap, then moved on to my neck, chest, armpits, crotch, ass, and ended at my feet. I did this without thinking about it, but now that I was, I remembered when I first adopted this order of scrubbing my body parts. I was 14, in eighth grade which was strangely a part of the high school, and one of the mandatory classes was swimming once a week during the gym period.
Swimming was only one of the unfortunate options my school forced upon us. We also had square dancing once a week. Square dancing! I didn’t go to high school in a hay barn, so you know. I grew up in the suburbs of Pennsylvania about 45 minutes north of Philadelphia. Someone in the administration decided that square dancing would get teens to socialize and be comfortable with occasionally locking arms. It wasn’t awful, but slightly odd and quite lame. Several students coincidentally went home sick from school on the days square dancing was on the schedule.
The swim class was co-ed, and we were required to wear the suits provided by the school. The girls’ suits were thin, tight one pieces. The boys had to wear loose fitting speedos equipped with a drawstring. I shudder as I think about it now. My penis was practically touching the penises of all the boys who wore the suit before me. What these suits had in common was that they both were navy blue, made of a nylon blend, and had a slight sheen reminiscent of grizzled fat. It seems criminal to emphasize the awkward and morphed bodies of young teens by forcing them to expose so much skin.
Because of the mutant-like metamorphosis the teenage body goes through, I’m a firm believer that boys and girls from the age of 13 to 16 should be sent to live on an island together. Not a Lord of Flies situation, but merely a place where they can be with their own kind. They can share in their experience, and the rest of us won’t have to witness their grotesque and gangly transformation into adulthood except for the handful of adults living on the island to supervise. Those poor bastards. The teens would be allowed to visit family on holidays. Think of it as a sleepaway camp that lasts 4 years.
Our swim coach was Mr. Smith, a generic name that suited his personality. He was a tall, lean, pasty skinned man with moptop hairdo and fashioning an equally disgusting and terrifying banana hammock. He repeatedly blew into a whistle that dangled from his neck which echoed within the concrete pool house. We lined up by the water’s edge side by side at the beginning of class. Every boy and girl strategically placed their hands in front of their own private parts. Our suits accentuated our immature bodies except for Tracy Walton. At 14 she had the breasts of a 28-year-old woman. A fact that probably made her feel freakish especially when being ogled by boys and girls alike.
I was particularly self-conscious of the little knuckle that protruded from my ill-fitting suit bottom. I knew once I jumped into the frigid pool my barely developed penis would cower even further toward my body. It would become flush with my skin leaving little acknowledgment that I was, in fact, a boy.
Throughout my teenage years, I waited to have a growth spurt where my johnson would increase to a gargantuan size. I imagined myself tucking it into my sock. I’d have to stand three feet back from the urinal to avoid dipping the head in the water. Rumors about the beast between my legs would become so overwhelming that I’d show it to a group of girls as confirmation. They would scream like rabid teens seeing The Beatles on Ed Sullivan. I’d be a stud. A legend. That growth spurt never came. I’m glad it didn’t. A penis of that size would make wearing shorts impossible.
Where the boys had to deal with the inevitability of shrinkage, the pool offered a different and powerful foe for the girls. When they got wet, their suits would suck tighter to their skin and fill in gaps, their bodies working like industrial vacuums. They would climb out of the pool and frantically pull at the bottoms of their suits in an attempt to liberate the nylon from the creases of their downstairs. Before they could, the boys in the class were informally introduced to their first camel toes. It’s a sight that is not necessarily arousing, but fascinating. The complicated anatomies of women was a mystery to me then, and in many ways still is. Seeing a detailed outline of a vagina gave me a glimpse of how it worked like viewing the schematic of a machine.
After thirty minutes of treading water, breaststrokes, and back floats Mr. Smith blew his final whistle for the class, and we were sent to the showers. Dread set in, and an uncomfortable heat rushed through my body. Inside the boy’s locker room was a vast, tiled cavern with different stations affixed with shower heads. This was not a series of stalls, but an open space, much like what you would find at a prison. I would have to first wash myself off wearing my suit, then strip exposing my hairless nether regions for all to see.
The thought of a girl seeing my twig and berries was mortifying, but an especially cruel boy could make my life a living hell for the foreseeable future. Not that any of the boys had a tuft of pubic hair atop a man-sized penis at this point yet if someone saw mine and I didn’t see his then he could make unsubstantiated claims about my chapstick-sized dick and I would have little recourse. Luckily, since we all kept our eyes front and washed at a breakneck speed, there was a small chance anyone would be called out.
One day, Mr. Smith followed us into the showers. Incidentally, we all joked that Mr. Smith was a sexual predator. However, he never did anything, as far as I know, inappropriate. He had the unfortunate position of being a half-naked grown man who taught half-naked teenagers swimming. The instinct is to assume he’s going to pull you into a dark corner and touch you in a way that would send you to a therapist for the remainder of your life. Calling him a pervert was a defense mechanism because we were so close to being nude and felt vulnerable. And he generally gave us all the creeps.
Mr. Smith puts his hands on his hips, his legs spread, mimicking the pose of a severely undressed superhero. The whistle hung from his neck nustled in his wispy chest hair. The group stood silently, our suits still dripping from the pool. I wondered if he was going to molest all of us at once.
“Gentlemen,” he began, “I have bad news for you. There has been an outbreak of athlete’s foot. Have any of you ever had athlete’s foot?”
We all nodded no.
“Well, let me tell you, it’s not pleasant. It’s a horrible fungal infection. Your feet itch so much that it hurts, it’s a relentless burning sensation, not to mention that your skin becomes a scaly rash. Does this sound fun?”
“Sounds fungal,” I said, trying to break the tension. Mr. Smith shot me a look. Why we were never asked to wear flip-flops in the shower, I’ll never know.
“Now, athlete’s foot can not only spread to other feet, but it can also spread to different parts of the body. That is why it is very important that you wash in the proper order.” He took his hands from his hips and pretended to wash as he delivered his instructions. “You start by washing your hair, then you wash your face, followed by your neck, shoulders, armpits, and torso.” He paused to make sure we were following along. “Next, and this is very important, you wash your groin area,” he said, making a circular motion with his hands which seemed an unorthodox way to wash my privates. “Then your buttocks, and lastly your legs and feet. Do not, I repeat, do NOT start with your feet and work your way up unless you want athlete’s foot on your crotch. As a man who has spent a lot of time in locker rooms,” he paused as we all chuckled, “You don’t want to have to deal with the repercussions of athlete’s foot on your special area. Does everyone understand me?” We nodded yes. I imagined my “special area” engulfed in flames, eventually burning to a crisp, and crumbling like ash.
Mr. Smith’s speech was 25 years ago. Since then I’ve showered in countless gyms, college dorms, several apartments, hotels around the world, and outdoor sheds next to beach houses. I’ve washed myself in the order he advised and have avoided athlete’s foot on my junk. I wonder if he’s still following teenage boys into the showers scaring them with the perils of improper bathing technique. A boy may be standing there, cracking a joke about fungus, with his penis touching the fabric of the same speedo that mine touched all those years ago.
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